VIP – The Misunderstood

VIP – The Misunderstood – 12.16.2018
[Matthew 1:18-25 and Matthew 25:31-33, 41-46]

          Have you ever been misunderstood? For example, have you ever ordered a cake and you wanted something on top – like writing or pictures and you struggle to explain what you want? For example, you call in and say, “Oh just write happy birthday on the cake.”  Or maybe you want to specify which color of frosting you want and say, “write thanks for a great year in purple.” Or perhaps you’d like to get a little multi-cultural, maybe it’s a friend from Mexico and so you ask, “please write Happy Birthday in Spanish.” Or sometimes you’ll have a really large party and so you’ll need two cakes, and you tell them on the phone, “write happy birthday on both.” Ah, but they keep messing up your order, so you think forget the words, I just want a picture, and you tell them, “Just put a paw print on the cake.” Ah, good grief, they can’t get the words right, they can’t get the pictures write. So just, forget it – you think – no words, no pictures and you tell them, “I want sprinkles.” For crying out loud, you know what, next time I order a cake I’m going to tell them, “just put nothing” on the cake. Nothing at all.

     But in all seriousness, have you ever been misunderstood? Have you ever had a fight with someone based on a misunderstanding? You said one thing, they thought you said another thing and so you start fighting and maybe yelling and treating each other poorly and then you realize the misunderstanding – but it’s too late at this point, you’ve already said horrible things and the fight is up and running? Or forget fighting, have you ever just felt misunderstood – like nobody gets you, nobody knows you, nobody knows who you are behind the face we put on in public? Today is part two of our sermon series ACCESS – where we look at the story of Christmas and ask the question – Who has access? Who is worthy to come before God? Who does God want? And today, we’re going to talk about those who are misunderstood, and again what we’re going to find is that when God welcomes the people out there who are misunderstood – he is also welcoming the part of us that is sometimes misunderstood.


    So we get started on our scripture lesson today, and it’s a pretty familiar story – a classic misunderstanding. Verse 18, [read it]. Now the story in Matthew kinda shortens the story, but in Luke we get a more detailed account. So we know that an angel appears to Mary and says, “Surprise! You’re going to get pregnant, and it’s going to be the son of God.” Mary says how is that possible, I’m a virgin, and the angel says what they always say, “don’t worry about it, God can do anything.” So Mary agrees, and says, “Okay, let’s do this thing.” That’s all in Luke, but in Matthew – we focus on the other half of that story, the fiancé. It says she was engaged to Joseph, but they were not living together – they weren’t married yet, so they were not having sex. But then Mary is pregnant. Then verse 19, [read it]. Now I know a lot of people gloss over this part of the story –but I want to name it. We need to look at the misunderstanding. Why does Joseph want to dismiss her? He believes she cheated on him. He believes she slept with another man, even though she was engaged to him. There’re all sorts of colorful words that our dictionary has for a woman like that, right? Joseph thought Mary was a cheater, that she cheated on him. So either Joseph doesn’t have all the information – OR he doesn’t believe her. When your fiancé shows up pregnant, and you haven’t been together yet – that’s cause for serious concern. Even if she’s got some story about an angel showing up – who is going to believe that? And I read this story, and two things come to mind. First, I feel really bad for Mary. This poor misunderstood woman. She’s doing this incredible thing, carrying this child for God – and everybody thinks she’s a horrible person. That she’s loose or easy or however you want to describe it. A child out of wedlock – the shame that that would bring on her. The second piece that sticks out to me is how quickly Joseph jumped to judgment. She’s found to be pregnant, and then in the next sentence – Joseph is dumping her. “Dismiss her quietly” it says. He was going to abandon her, leave her to fend for herself in a world where women couldn’t work. He didn’t want to make a big show and shame her, he just wanted out. Instead of finding out more information, he jumped to a conclusion. I think this teaches us something about making informed decisions. Most misunderstandings come from a lack of communication. So what we learn from this situation is the importance of having all the information. Don’t jump to conclusions, don’t jump to responses or action until you know everything. Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if politicians followed that rule? The best decision is an informed decision, and to have that you need both sides of an issue. In politics, in our work, in our relationships, in our families and schools. Joseph teaches us that we need all the information before we jump to dramatic actions.
    Verse 20, [read 20-21]. Just as he had resolved to do it, just when he made up his mind – an angel shows up to set the record straight. But look at what the angel says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Does anybody else thing that’s kind of an interesting choice of words? Afraid? If someone cheats on their fiancé, I would think the response would be anger, or pain – but fear? What’s he afraid of? And I was thinking about that this past week – what is the role that fear plays in misunderstandings? And I realize, fear and anger are methods of self-defense in moments of misunderstandings. Nobody wants to be hurt, and when people are close to us they can hurt us a lot. So when there is potential for hurt, for pain – we react really strongly. We are afraid of being hurt, and so all the emotions are heightened. I think what the angel was saying is, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, you’re not going to get hurt. She’s not like that.” When someone hurts us, or it looks like someone hurts us – a lot of times our gut reaction is the wrong reaction. To avoid misunderstandings, to make healthy, informed decisions – we need all the information and we have to get our emotions under control before we lash out and react. Do not be afraid, do not let fear control your response. That’s three verses, but there’s so much that Joseph has to teach us.
    So now we’ll shift over to our second scripture lesson, in chapter 25. Now this is a scripture we’re going to read every week in December – because the Christmas story has a bigger message about welcoming than just the baby in the manger. Chapter 25 is a story that comes from Jesus, and he’s talking about judgment day using the metaphor of sheep and goats. Some people over here, and others over here. And it says, [read v.41-45]. Imagine with me for a second, of Jesus Christ showed up on your front porch, and asked for some food – what would you give him? Personally, I’d get so excited! Jesus is here! What is the most delicious thing that I can make that I can give to Jesus? You know what? I’m only good at making eggs, and that’s not good enough for Jesus, so we have to go out! Nicest restaurant in town, whatever he wants – order half the menu, it’s Jesus! Jesus is coming, roll out the red carpet. But in this passage, what we have here is Jesus identifying himself with the least of these. He equates himself with the lowest people in our world. Hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, prison – these people share equality with Jesus. They should be just as important to us as Jesus. Jesus tells us you have to treat them the same way you treat me. For whatever you did or did not do to the least of these, you did it to me. This is the Christian misunderstanding of inequality. This passage destroys inequality. There should be NO inequality in our world – plain and simple. We think – if I’d known it was you – I never would have…this is all just a big misunderstanding. But Jesus says, look at the least of these, look at the lowest in society and see the face of God.

          The good news this morning is that God understands us. God knows us, God identifies with us. Literally, in those moments when nobody else gets it, when nobody else understands, when we are feeling the lowest – God says, “we are on the same page.” This is a message that is plastered all over the words of scripture. Jeremiah 1:5, “Before you were born, I knew you.” Jeremiah 29: 11 “I know the plans I have for you.” Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.” God understands us. Think about the timing of the story. Joseph and Mary were getting married, if God had waited just a couple months or done this just a few months earlier – all the drama could have been skipped. All the potential misunderstandings could have been avoided, but God chose this exact moment in history to have Mary carry Jesus – because God identifies with the misunderstood. God works with those who are not understood by the people around them. Those who are pushed aside, cast out – God reaches out to them and brings them back to the center of the story. God was there, looking out for Mary, and God is here – looking out for you in the moments of your life when you are misunderstood. In a world where no one else gets it, when no one else understands us, God understands us. Beyond our identity, beyond our jobs, our money, our marital status, our politics, beyond our nice homes, beyond everything that makes you you, beyond our race, beyond our gender, beyond our age – God understands you. Romans 8 tells us, “and the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying.” (8:26-27a). Even when we can’t speak, we can’t figure out how to express ourselves – God understands us.

   So our response is that if we want to be like Jesus, we must work to understand and identify with other people. God understands everyone, and our goal is to be godly, to do things in life to be like Jesus – so we have to work to understand people. Jesus looked at the lowest of society and said, treat them like you would treat me. We have to treat everyone like Jesus. If we want to be like Jesus we have to understand the misunderstood. Jesus gave us everything we need to know about equality and how we treat people who are different from us. There is no misunderstanding. I don’t want to stand before God at the end of all things and say, “this is a misunderstanding – if I had known that was you…I would have done things so differently.” In our lives, especially in the Christmas season, we have to work to understand the misunderstood.
   The obvious question at this point is, “how?” How can we avoid misunderstanding in our lives and how can we resolve those conflicts when they show up. God welcomes and loves the misunderstood, but he doesn’t leave them like that. The example of Joseph and of Jesus gives us a few things to work with. First, make informed decisions about others. Joseph did not have all the information, or he didn’t believe it – but if he had known maybe he would have been wiser. The people on the left hand of Jesus, if they had known that how they treat others is the measure for how they treat Jesus – if they had had all the information – maybe they would not have misunderstood. Think about your life, the fights you have been in, the disagreements and misunderstands that you have been a part of. You have been Joseph, misunderstanding someone close to you – afraid that they might hurt you, wanting to run away to avoid the pain. You have been Joseph at some point in your life. You have been Mary, doing something honestly with a good heart, while people judge you and misunderstand and want to push you away. In your life you have been both Mary and Joseph in the world of misunderstandings – and all of that could have been avoided if we put communication first and made informed decisions.
          But there’s a second part, the reason we brush aside communication and jump to conclusions – is because we let emotions run the show. The angel said, “do not be afraid.” When there is a misunderstanding, do not let fear or anger control your decisions. Take a step back, take a deep breath, fill in the blanks, check for misunderstandings, get a complete picture first and then make a decision. Moment of honesty? I’ve done both in my life. I’ve been Joseph, when someone says something or does something – and I react with anger. I’ve been betrayed in my life, I’ve been hurt. And it sucks, I hate it. So when a situation comes, and it looks like I might get hurt, but I don’t have all the information – sometimes I react with fear or anger. And I think I can confidently tell you this morning – every single time I react with emotion instead of understanding – I make things worse. The misunderstanding spirals out of control and more people get hurt. But, on the other hand, when I take a step back. Treat people like I would treat Jesus, get all the information, don’t assume, don’t jump to conclusions – when I have a measured, understanding approach – we can skip the confusion, the crisis, the pain that might have been. By remembering that Jesus put himself on the same level as the people we misunderstand – it puts the breaks on fear and anger, and lets love conquer every trial.
     Verse 23 tells us, [read it]. God is with us. In those moments when we misunderstand, and we cause pain by jumping to conclusions, and then in those moments when we are misunderstood and people around us a poised to hurt us – God is with us. God understands us. And so I’ll leave you with this. Are there moments in your life when need God to reassure you and understand you? Are there moments when you need to treat others like Jesus, and not let fear control your responses? And finally, push it beyond yourself – are there people in your life who are misunderstood? Can you follow the example of God and reach into their lives? Identify with them, love them, understand them like Jesus does. For whatever you do to the least of these – you do it to me. Amen.